The blog of the Urban Institute
October 30, 2020

Debunking Three Myths about Rural America

How to improve research and reporting for the 2020 election and beyond

News media and scholarly reporting frequently misrepresent or misunderstand rural America. Few examples illustrate this more than the wake of the 2016 election, when droves of largely nonrural reporters flocked to rural communities to find out what happened.

Although much has been written critiquing such drive-by journalism, narrow and reductive depictions of rural America persist. This storytelling contributes to growing mistrust of outside researchers and reporters, and the oft-described rural-urban divide erases rural diversities and unduly polarizes differences between cities and small towns.

With more local newsrooms closing, local perspectives on rural stories are told less often, and the most negative stories from nonlocal reporters rise to the top. Although two-thirds of 2016 Donald Trump voters were neither poor nor working class, and although small city and suburban voters played a greater role in Trump’s victory than rural voters, most national media still focus on rural voters and circulate tropes of rural Americans as largely white, uneducated, working-class farmers.

To improve the accuracy and relevance of rural reporting, journalists and researchers can eschew rural myths, represent the diversities of rural places, and focus on rural-specific experiences with issues common to all communities. Here we debunk three myths about rural America and provide recommendations for reporters and researchers engaging rural communities during the 2020 election cycle and beyond.

Myth: Rural America is the white, agricultural “heartland.”

Fact: Rural America is increasingly diverse.

One in five Americans lives in rural communities, and more than one in five (22 percent) rural residents are people of color. Rural Native American (PDF), Asian, and Latinx (PDF) groups are growing fastest, followed by African Americans (PDF) with modest population gains, and non-Hispanic white groups experiencing the slowest growth. Most rural Americans are not farmers—in fact, fewer than 6 percent (PDF) of rural Americans are employed in agriculture. The largest employers are the education, health care, and social assistance sectors (PDF), followed by retail, construction, and transportation (PDF). And rural communities exist in nearly every state and territory, not just the Midwest.

Stereotypes about rural America as the white, agricultural heartland perpetuate the myth of the rural idyll (PDF), in which rural places are depicted as aspirational, largely white farming communities set apart from modern life. This myth erases the historical and growing diversity of rural places, masks real and persistent rural challenges, and miscasts rural ways of life as antiquated or regressed.

Myth: Poor, rural people live in “cultures of poverty.”

Fact: Most chronic economic challenges in rural areas occur because of changing global economies.

Consequences of globalizationincluding manufacturing losses, economic restructuring, extractive industry monopolization, and agricultural consolidation (PDF)—have contributed to economic decline and social disruption in many, though certainly not all, rural places. Instead of reflecting such realities, reporting about these communities often scapegoats residents as having intergenerational social or moral deficiencies that entrench them in “cultures of poverty.”

In such depictions, poor, rural white people are often othered with racialized framings to distance them from them from nonrural, nonpoor white people and blame them for purported moral and social failings in similar ways as are used against people of color (for example, the “white trash” epithet). Such framings reinforce anti-Black racist and classist myths about the causes of rural poverty among white people and diminish the intersecting impacts (PDF) of changing global economies and race-based discrimination (PDF) in many rural communities of color.

Myth: “Rural” is a singular voting bloc.

Fact: Rural voters are not a monolith.

Though politically conservative candidates often win races in agriculture-dependent (PDF) rural communities, politically progressive candidates frequently do better in rural communities with strong recreation, amenity-based, and service economies (PDF). In the 2016 election, nearly one in three nonmetro voters supported Clinton, and persistently poor rural counties were less likely to support Trump than counties experiencing more recent economic decline, even when controlling for urbanity. When researchers and reporters cast rural voters as a singular bloc, they homogenize rural peoples’ interests and fail to account for long-standing and growing political progressivism in many rural regions of the US.

Recommendations for strengthening rural research and reporting

To improve the accuracy and relevance of reporting, researchers and journalists can consider the following recommendations.

  1. Understand that rural issues are urban issues are suburban issues. The “rural-urban” divide is an outdated construct—rural America in the 21st century is increasingly interconnected with its suburban and metropolitan neighbors. And though rural and urban areas are often socially, economically, and politically distinct, residents face many of the same issues: health care (PDF), education, employment, housing, household finances, criminal justice reform, and climate change (PDF). The contrast lies in the varied impacts of these issues, experienced differently in different communities. Recognizing these similarities can support more tailored and comprehensive reporting, research, and policy agendas to address challenges shared by all.
  2. Develop and invest in rural cultural competencies. Perpetuating myths about rural communities has generated deep mistrust in researchers and reporters among many rural populations. To rebuild trust and accurately report on the diversities of rural community assets and challenges, researchers and reporters can avoid drive-by journalistic and research practices; build relationships with local experts, stakeholders, and people with rural knowledge; partner with rural reporters and invest in rural beats and rural research agendas; and budget time and resources to identify and obtain quality rural data and related secondary information.
  3. Report on rural opportunities and assets in addition to challenges. Rural America is diverse, and communities experiencing economic or other challenges also have assets and opportunities worthy of reporting. Examples span cultural, economic, natural resource, and political domains— including growing rural homecomer movements and rural resilience policy agendas; increasing numbers of African American, Latinx (PDF), and women farm operators; rural immigration’s influence on small town thriving; Just Transition planning for resilient coal communities; and community economic success stories in regions where successes are often less reported.

Reporters and researchers are influential voices that elevate, sustain, and change national discourses. During the 2020 election and beyond, they can either improve or degrade public understandings of rural communities. As local newsrooms continue to disappear and rural myths persist, researchers and reporters can strengthen the quality and accuracy of rural reporting by avoiding stereotypes, meaningfully engaging rural stakeholders, and elevating the diversity, assets, and challenges of rural places.

Kirk Fisher/Shutterstock

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